Initial nuclear exuberance: Too cheap to meter (!)

Click here to learn about the initial limitless expectations people had for nuclear power.


The nuclear industry brought to its knees by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

During the early years, nuclear engineers believed that nuclear power plants were so safe that it was impossible to cause a nuclear accident that would lead to the emission of large amounts of radioactivity into the environment and thus they implemented very few safety procedures. Therefore, the construction and operation costs of nuclear power plants were very low.

Then the 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters struck in quick succession and brought the nuclear industry to its knees: During the 3 Mile Island accident, the release of large amounts of radioactivity was narrowly averted. However, due to design errors, human errors and refusal to stick to the rules massive amounts of radioactivity was released into the air, from where it contaminated the water and soil. From there it contaminated plants, which the animals then ate. In this way, the human food chain was contaminated. Following a huge outcry by environmentalists, nuclear regulators dramatically increased the number and strictness of the safety regulations for nuclear reactors. The effect was that nuclear reactors became so expensive and so complicated to build that many power utilities lost faith in nuclear power and thus cancel their construction orders for nuclear power plants.

This led to 2 decades of stagnation and decline for the global nuclear industry. During this time practically no new nuclear reactors were built in the West. New employees do that not enter the nuclear industry and existing employees started to leave and retire. This resulted in a widespread shortage of nuclear skills in the West.


Fears of global warming raised hopes of a nuclear renaissance: Where do we stand?

Up till that point, coal power was the main source of the international power industry. However, the world then discovered that CO2 and other pollutants released into the atmosphere by burning coal was busy producing dangerous levels of global warming and global climate change. At that stage wind power and solar power were far expensive than coal power and nuclear power. Therefore, world leaders became convinced that nuclear power will be the world’s best hope of producing large amounts of clean power at affordable prices. Therefore, construction orders streamed in and things were, at last, looking up for the nuclear industry. This future looked bright and was termed the global nuclear renaissance.

But then, tragedy struck again when the Fukushima nuclear accident hit Japan in 2011.


The triumphant march of renewables

Having been disappointed in nuclear power once again, the world shifted its hopes to renewables, e.g. solar power and wind power. Since wind and especially solar power were much more expensive than coal power, massive amounts of subsidies were pumped into these technologies. The resulting massive increase in sales volumes led to remarkable successes, especially in that the cost of wind and solar power dropped dramatically, to the extent that new wind and solar power are currently the cheapest forms of new electricity.

However, wind and solar power are notoriously intermittent/variable. Unfortunately, the power grid needs extremely stable power supply and cannot cope with the large power supply fluctuations that occur when the wind speed goes up or down or when the sun disappears behind a cloud or sets. Therefore wind and solar power require power storage or backup by for instance flexible gas power. Unfortunately, these requirements substantially increase the cost of the final product so that the cost of the mixture is roughly equal to that of coal power. Therefore, for all the enthusiasm about wind and solar, world leaders are looking for a more stable source of clean power.


The current global outlook for nuclear power

Nuclear power remains the most viable candidate to fulfil this role of supplying clean power with a stable output at a reasonable price and, therefore, a substantial number of new nuclear plants are currently under construction and there is currently substantial interest in ordering additional new nuclear power plants.

The current outlook for nuclear power is cautiously optimistic: almost all large studies on future energy sources predict that solar and wind power will keep getting cheaper. For the next decade, they will thus grow much faster than nuclear power. However, these studies also predict that there will be steady growth in the use of nuclear power, although at a much slower pace than solar and wind power.

This steady growth in the use of nuclear power is expected to create substantial work opportunities for our students in the international and South African nuclear markets.